Poppies on the roof of Rennie Gallery in Vancouver’s Chinatown said to “honour” the opium dens in Chinatown in the 1800's-1900’s // Photo by weareconsidered

The missing story of the Marpole Temporary Modular Housing protest

On cultural stigma of the homeless and drug users

Update: A condensed version of this piece was published on the Vancouver Sun on January 6, 2017 here.

The Marpole Temporary Modular Housing (TMH) project has been an intensely debated issue with emotions flaring at all sides. What started as a well-intended announcement by the Mayor to alleviate homelessness quickly escalated to ongoing protests, counter protests, a construction blockade stopped by an injunction, and now an upcoming lawsuit against the City. But in the midst of this civic drama, there is a missing story on cultural stigma of the homeless and drug users that has yet to be told.

The main point of contention is from concerned parents who are worried their school-aged children will be harmed by the homeless moving in next to the school grounds. The perceived threat is that the new tenants will bring with them drugs, needles, and crime. There is an undercurrent of public cynicism towards the protesters who appear to be mostly recent Chinese and other Asian immigrants as there is a high Asian population in Marpole. The protesters are described as hateful poor-bashers and selfish homeowners who don’t want their land value decreased because of the unwanted neighbours. Even the Mayor joined in on protester shaming with his remark that he is “concerned about the vicious comments, the stigma that’s being put on people that are homeless.”

Personally, I agree that the Marpole project is much needed housing. Further, I speak from experience attending elementary school in the Downtown Eastside that the fears of child safety from such an arrangement if combined with preventative education is unfounded. However, I also believe there is a critical issue the Marpole debate has surfaced that has almost been completely ignored in the public discourse, but needs to be addressed: The predisposed Asian cultural stigma of drug users.

Out of all the concerns from the Marpole protestors, the most frequently cited is the fear that the homeless are drug users who will improperly dispose drug paraphernalia. The Marpole protesters are not alone in that fear right now. Our neighbours in Edmonton Chinatown are protesting four supervised injection sites that will be located near their neighbourhood. The primary concern is similar: the concentration of drug users will bring violence and crime to the area. Vancouver Chinatown’s community also had the same fears about the supervised injection site Insite when it was first proposed, but those views have since changed. Another example is Councillor Kerry Jang’s description of “100 Chinese people coming and yelling” at City Hall at a 2013 protest over fears of drug and substance abuse by future tenants at a temporary social housing project at the old Ramada Inn in Hastings-Sunrise, also a neighbourhood with a traditionally large Asian immigrant population. It is easy to dismiss these episodes as individual examples that Chinese and Asians are simply hateful towards drug users, the homeless and mentally disabled. But looking back at the history and current government mandates of China and other parts of Asia, the picture becomes a lot more complex.

The Economist recently published an essay titled The Opium Wars still shape China’s view of the West where they describe the historical tensions between China and the West concerning opium trade and the resulting Opium Wars in the mid 19th century. The two wars were ignited in part because China wanted to put a stop to the British illegal recreational opium imports into China that was creating a country of opium addicts. The wars ended with the ransacking of the Chinese imperial Old Summer Palace by the British and French troops, and the surrender of Hong Kong to the British. During that time, opium and opium dens were also spread throughout Chinese diaspora communities in countries like Singapore and even overseas to Vancouver’s Chinatown. By 1906, an estimated 13.5 million of 200 million people in China and 27% of Chinese men including soldiers and government officials were opium addicts. By 1949, estimates grew to 20 million addicts, which was about 5% of the population in China at that time (source). Though this period of Chinese history is now romanticized in the West in the form of appropriative “opium dens” in upscale restaurants and exotic oriental poppy seed cocktails, it was and still is a painful and humiliating period of Chinese history that elicit strong emotions among many Chinese people today. The opium crisis is considered to be one of the key events that led to the downfall of the Middle Kingdom and the pride of its people at home and abroad.

Fast forward to the 21st century, China and other Asian countries with large Chinese diaspora have harsh zero-tolerance drug laws. Drug traffickers in China, Indonesia, Singapore and Philippines face the death penalty. If people who are addicted to drugs are caught in China, they are immediately registered on a police registry and rigorously monitored until they can prove that they have been free from addiction for three years. Until 2013, people addicted to drugs in China were isolated and placed into forced labour camps, which are now renamed “detention” or “treatment” centres said to be operated by law enforcement instead of medical professionals. These compulsory detention centres offering “work therapy” also exist in other Asian countries, such as Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.

At the family level, individuals addicted to drugs are considered to be an embarrassment to an Asian family. Because drug use is often viewed to be related to criminal activity, drug users are regarded as morally deficient and selfish. In a country like China where the family support network is a key component of the social safety net, drug users are deemed to have broken the family unit as they can no longer contribute to and support the family. A woman provides a first-hand account on the intimidation education she was exposed to in China: “Take drugs, and your family will fall apart.”

Stigma towards drug users is also prevalent in other aspects of Asian society. Popular culture and media in Asia reinforce the stigma with the display of “explicit, drug-related violence.” Until recently, even opioids used for medicinal purposes to ease pain are tightly controlled and used infrequently in China relative to its population size, because the state is still haunted by the “century of humiliation.

Government policies, state education, healthcare, and media in China and similar Asian countries all continue to reinforce the cultural stigma against drug users stemmed from history and fear. It is coupled with the strong negative feelings towards drug users that many Asians are raised with at home. The humiliation of the Opium Wars has been re-casted on the individual drug user who are now labeled as a “humiliation” to their family and community. Similar stigmas exist for those who are mentally disabled, homeless, and have HIV or AIDS.

Back in Canada and the US from 1980’s onwards, school children were exposed to the popular preventative D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program. But for many immigrants who live in neighbourhoods like Marpole or Hastings-Sunrise, they bring with them learned cultural perspectives on drug use that were forced upon them in their home countries. Such strong cultural stigmas do not easily evaporate through immigration resulting in the tensions that we see at the Marpole protest and similar resistance.

Once we trace back the origins of the deep Asian stigma towards drug users, a consistent pattern emerges of why there may be immigrant community resistance for projects like the one in Marpole. The lack of common cultural understanding combined with the City of Vancouver’s poorly planned public announcement of the project before initial community outreach are factors that can readily ignite innate cultural fears that manifest into irrational resistance. Now that the history of the stigma is placed in context, the next question is — how do we productively move forward so we can mitigate similar animosity in the future in order for much needed housing and services to be quickly built and activated across Vancouver?

First, the City of Vancouver needs to understand that the Asian stigma towards drug users is deeply rooted in history and continue to be enforced by many Asian states and institutions where the immigrants are from. Like in the health profession, the City should apply different cultural lenses as appropriate when dealing with civic issues that may be highly sensitive to immigrant populations, especially for ones that evoke a baggage of cultural stigma. The City should also take steps to build genuine trust with the community-at-large through authentic listening and regular direct outreach about critical city-wide civic matters, such as the fentanyl crisis or homelessness, before any specific related projects are even contemplated for a neighbourhood. This is not to recommend prolonging the public consultation process for individual projects, but rather to promote regular trust-building dialogue to minimize resistance of future projects, so that housing for the homeless can get online faster. Lastly, the City can demonstrate leadership with proactive continual education to help immigrant populations overcome their predisposed stigmas, which cannot be easily unlearned overnight. In fact, community members have already picked up the City’s slack on education for the Marpole community through organic peer education. Approached the right way, immigrant communities do have the capacity to change their negative perceptions as shown by the Vancouver Chinatown community’s complete turnaround on their attitudes toward Insite.

Cultural diversity can be a source of strength for cities, but it also carries with it its fair share of challenges. The Marpole incident is a reminder that the predisposed cultural stigma among Asian immigrant populations towards the homeless and drug users is a continual challenge of Vancouver’s diversity that has not been properly addressed by the City. True, this cultural stigma and its origins cannot explain all the reasons for community resistance towards this or similar projects. Nevertheless, it is one underlying cause in which the City is in the best position to effect change, but only if they choose to start to sincerely understand.

Post note: A great book on the necessity of cultural sensitivity is The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which is about the cultural clash of immigrant Hmong parents and American doctors on the care of a young Hmong girl with severe epilepsy.